How does a Marvel film manage to not feel like a Marvel film? You start by reinventing a character with questionable origins through a modern lens, choreographing fight scenes never seen before in the Marvel franchise and feature fun but not distracting cameos. Add it all up and we get the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and the newest franchise that will likely anchor the next decade of superhero movies.
PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS MOVIE REVIEW WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS FOR SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS. PLEASE PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK.
Upon examination of a character like Shang Chi, a lot of problematic issues begin to emerge in the movie. Created by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin in the 1970’s, the character originated in Marvel comics due to a cultural craving for kung fu thanks in large part to the films of Bruce Lee as well as a popular television starring David Carradine titled Kung Fu although this show has been retrospectively criticized for casting a white man to play an Asian man. Englehart and Starlin were mandated to include the caricature of Fu Manchu, a racist depiction of Asian men as well as making the character’s mother white in order to appease certain groups of the population. In addition to the whitewashing of the character, they were required to give Shang Chi an orange/yellow hue in order to stand out. While not initially a success, the character was finally given his own series in the early 80’s and has since become a staple of Marvel’s lineup.
While it’s not impossible to reinvent the character, the filmmakers of the Shang Chi movie opted to completely avoid the stereotypes that plagued the early storylines and embraced the aspects of Asian that are celebrated; caring for elders, respect for parents and respectfully mourning deceased family members, the inclusion of San Francisco as a setting for the film (the city actually has the highest percentage of residents of Chinese descent of any major US city) and the celebration of Chinese mythology and creatures as central tenets of the film. These aspects are noticeable even to the casual movie viewer and the film doesn’t shy away from using these tenets as a means of introducing people to an otherwise unfamiliar culture.
The Shang Chi movie itself is worth praising even if it weren’t attached to the overall arc of the MCU. The action in this Marvel film is incredible and manages to offer things not seen in prior releases. The prologues has a well-choreographed fight between Shang Chi’s father and mother and the first real action scene doesn’t occur for nearly 15 minutes and occurs in a bus as Shang Chi, hiding as Shaun in San Francisco, manages to fight off five assassins during his morning commute. It’s common for fight scenes to feature many fast cuts which only serve to confuse the viewer, Shang Chi moves the action but keeps the camera steady and allows the audience to truly engage and connect with the characters as they’re not only fighting but exorcising some family drama. Wenwu is a welcome tonic to the otherwise bland villain palate of the MCU and while he doesn’t fit the traditional role of the villain, everyone can relate to the burdensome expectations put upon Shang Chi by his criminal father.
In spite of its standalone status, the Shang Chi movie does manage to connect to the MCU in clever ways. It resolves the Ten Rings confusion from past films like Iron Man and Iron Man 3 by the way of appropriation from terrorists who were unaware of the organization’s history and by kidnapping Trevor Slattery to serve as Wenwu’s jester. It also manages to finally bring back Emil Blonsky/The Abomination after a long absence following his introduction in The Incredible Hulk as well as one of the most entertaining cameos from Wong, one of the MCU’s most unsung heroes. It also manages to introduce new lore and raises new questions that only build anticipation future films and introduces some heart and much needed humor after the solemnity of Black Widow.
VERDICT: 4.5 pendants out of 5